The 2017 school year is still more than a year away, but Chris Anderson, the coordinator of the Faulkner Planetarium at College of Southern Idaho, is already preparing for the first day of his annual physics class.
That day, August 21, 2017, happens to be the day that a total eclipse of the sun will be visible from a narrow band of the earth that includes southern Idaho. The path of the moon’s “umbral shadow” that day will cross the width of the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina. Already physicists, eclipse-chasers, and regular people all over the world are making plans for the brief but powerful event.
Anderson’s plans are educational. He’s going to get in touch with his students well ahead of time and tell them they’ll be taking a field trip on the first day of school, and heading to see the eclipse either in Rexburg or in Weiser, two spots that he’s identified as prime locations. He’s already talking to bus companies about charters that will include not just his students but also community members who want to get a glimpse of the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.
Anderson said while people might think they’ve seen an eclipse before, they probably haven’t. They’ve probably seen a partial eclipse. The shadow of a total eclipse did fall over Idaho in 1979; Anderson himself saw that one as a partial eclipse when he was a high school student in Illinois, already interested in astronomy. But although the earth experiences a total eclipse every 18 months, it’s unusual to be in its path. The next one to pass over the contiguous U.S. will be in 2024, but Idaho won’t see another total eclipse until 2169.
Tour operators, tourism promoters, and hospitality companies from coast to coast are promoting the 2017 eclipse as an opportunity to draw visitors. The total eclipse will be a boom for Idaho tourism, because it will attract so many people who haven’t seen the state before, and who are already planning longer trips around the 2 minutes of totality. Although the path of the eclipse is huge, astronomers say southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon are one of the best places in the country to see it, because chances are so low that clouds will get in the way. Boise’s a little too far south to see the total eclipse, though it will be found as near to the Idaho capital as Cascade or near the Ontario border.
Anderson himself has identified Mann Creek State Park in Weiser as the “meteorological sweet spot” for his school trip; he’ll choose between Weiser and Rexburg on the day, depending on the cloud forecast.
The cities and towns along the 60-mile-wide band where the total eclipse will be visible are creating eclipse websites and marketing plans. Oregon State Parks has created a page to show which campgrounds are in the eclipse’s “path of totality,” and the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club has created an 11-day trip for its members to Stanley for hiking and eclipse-viewing, with an astronomer as one of the leaders. The trip is sold out, said AMC co-leader Steve Cohen.
As preparations continue, it’s important to keep in mind that the total eclipse is not a commercial event; it’s a celestial event, one that transcends by an indescribably large measure the turmoil that humans are causing and enduring on the surface of the planet.
With that in mind, Anderson’s goal is to inform all Idahoans, whether they pay regular attention to the cosmos or not, that the 2017 event is worth planning for. Amateur and professional astronomers from Asia, Australia, and Europe have already booked hotel rooms along the band of the total eclipse that passes through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Astronomers are paying attention, as are travel and tourism operators. For everyone else, Anderson wants to make sure it’s clear what enthusiasts are traveling from Japan to experience. His most important message: wherever you are on that day, if you can, find your way to the path of totality. Seeing a total eclipse is totally different from seeing a partial eclipse.
“The sky goes black, and the stars and planets come out,” Anderson said of totality. “You look up at the sun, and it’s a black circle, and you see the outer atmosphere, the corona, which is never visible under any other circumstances. If there are prominences, hot gas eruptions, there are little red blobs sticking out.
“You can often see the eclipse sweeping along the ground, whooshing along at hundreds of miles of an hour, and none of those things are visible anywhere but on the shadow path,” he said. “Honestly, it’s one of those things that, for many people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.